Gael Garcia Bernal stars as an ad whiz hired to help oust Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet from power Credit: Sony Pictures Classics Gael Garcia Bernal stars as an ad whiz hired to help oust Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet from power
Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

'No'
Director: Pablo Larraín
Stars: Gael García Bernal, Alfredo Castro
Rating: R
5 (out of 5) Globes

It’s strange but true: In 1988, a decade and a half into his bloody stint, monstrous Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet held a referendum vote, allowing his populace to vote “yes” or “no” on whether he should stay. They voted “no” (by a not huge margin), and Pinochet stepped down to await being arrested and tried as a war criminal. (He died before being convicted.) This crazier-than-fiction tale fuels “No,” which joins the countless anti-Pinochet docs but does so without actually depicting Pinochet (save some on-TV cameos) nor, intriguingly, being all that explicitly against him. Not that its sympathies are ever in doubt.

Gael García Bernal plays René, an ad whiz who goes from hawking a soda called “Free” to heading the campaign to oust the country’s fearless leader. Each side gets 15 minutes of TV space to sell their position to the nation’s television addicts, and Rene’s job is to find a sexy way to remind viewers of devastation and horror without clunking them over the head or boring them.

 

The ridiculous ‘80s commercials that eat up a sizable chunk of the running time are, you won’t believe, real, and they help turn what could have been a sobering, earnest, righteously angry docudrama instead into a rollicking, savvy, oft-hilarious docu-dramedy, albeit one that has its moments of righteous anger. Such moments are the film at its weakest, as are scenes of René’s homelife, which try to humanize him but, as with the kid subplots in “Moneyball” and “Argo,” serve only as perfunctory distractions. But 95 percent of “No” is smart people in busy rooms shooting out ideas, with the astonishingly dated commercials from both sides interwoven for levity and entertainment factor.

“No” has a distinctive look that’s a bear to get used to: director Pablo Larraín — whose “Tony Manero,” about a “Saturday Night Fever” fanatic who’s also a serial killer, also concerns life under Pinochet — shot the entire movie on U-matic, the dominant TV video format at the time. It’s objectively ugly but easier to get used to than the High Frame Rate of “The Hobbit,” in part because it allows a smooth flow between action and the ever-present TV ads. But what’s really striking is its perverse argument: Like “Lincoln,” it pitches the idea that even the noblest of ideas — ending slavery, showing a murderous dictator the door — requires gross manipulation. One has to be, it says, as ruthless as the evil foe you’re battling.

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